Why I can’t say I don’t contribute to another’s oppression

The other day on twitter I said:

A friend responded to that last tweet, asking if I could expand on that, perhaps in a blog post, so here I am trying to do that. Those few short sentences, though, reflect something that’s so fundamental to my understanding of, well, understanding itself that it may be tough.

Why can’t a white person (like, for example, me) say, “I’m not racist”?

Well, mainly because, as white people, we’re not on the receiving end of racism. We don’t experience its reality day in and day out. I’m not talking about individual prejudice here, either. Racism is much bigger than some yokel saying “I don’t like black people.” It’s an entire system that others, disparages, discards and devalues anyone who is not white. When you’re white, you don’t experience it in full. You may see instances of it. You may recognize its effects, but it’s not a force pointed at you, so you don’t really know it.

Moreover, it’s so interwoven in your entire society, in your upbringing, your history, your schooling, your media, your stories, that it’s right there in your head.

Racism isn’t about individual attitudes and actions. They’re just one part of it. Sure, we can all point at the KKK, at the horrible things that one coworker said, at obvious manifestations of prejudice, but if we limit our definition of racism to those sorts of things, then we’re refusing to see how deep racism really goes. Yeah, I’ll be repenting the rest of my life for helping my dad campaign for David Duke when I was a teenager, but that’s not what I was thinking about when I wrote My name is Gabe and… I’m racist.

See, our whole culture is shot through with racism. It was in the air I breathed as a child. It was in the stories I read, the shows I watched, the behaviors of those all around me, and now it’s in me. It’s one of my own little demons, one of my own original sins, inside me for as long as I’ve had consciousness.

I’m part of the system that creates and perpetuates white privilege and white supremacy, simply by virtue of being a white person in this world, and especially being a white person in the US. I don’t get to decide when I am not racist because I’m not the one that racism is pointed toward. If someone said “What you said/did was racist,” I don’t get to respond, “No it’s not, because I’m not prejudiced.” It’s not about me. It’s not about my intent. It’s about something I did that plays into, reinforces and upholds the racist forces that shape our society (societies?). I can’t even speak from a place of authority on this, because I’m white. Hell, by being a white person telling other white people about racism, I’m probably playing into that systemic racism, elevating my voice above the voices of people of color.

It’s similar to, but not the same as, when straight people say “I’m not homophobic.” Homophobia isn’t about some individual hating or fearing gay people. It’s about a systemic devaluing of non-straight people and sexualities. Just because a straight person doesn’t have any problems with gay people, just because they’re a professed ally, doesn’t mean that they don’t play into the systemic nature of homophobia.

When you’re not part of an oppressed class, you’re not an expert on their oppression. It’s like what Grace said about intersectionality:

To say, as a white person, “I’m not racist,” or as a straight person, “I’m not homophobic,” or as a cis person, “I’m not transphobic,” what you’re doing is privileging your own understanding of other people’s experience over their understanding of their own experience. You’re taking yourself out of the societal forces that shape you and everything around you, defining yourself in some mythical neutral space. Doing so is a refusal to recognize the agency of people to know and understand their own experience. It’s to put your voice above theirs.

So maybe we white folks oughta say, “I’m probably racist, but I’m trying to work against that.” Straight folks oughta say, “Homophobia is endemic to the culture in which I grew up, but I’m trying to lessen its presence around me.” Cis folks oughta say, “I was shaped by a world hostile to trans* people, but I’m trying to work against that hostility in my own life.”

But more than all of that, more than making it about us by saying “I’m not [insert form of societal prejudice here],” we oughta just be quiet and listen to the people who are experts on all of this, because it’s really not about the members of the privileged class. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, all oppressions, they’re not about any individual’s intent. They’re about the impact those things have on the lives of those against whom they’re directed.

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